I spent most of my 20s in a doctoral program in American History. For a historian, time moves in only one direction, and the past is something to be sliced and diced to create the ingredients for a scholarly argument. Throughout my extended education, for all its attendant professional and personal ups and downs, I never lost faith in my discipline as an intellectual proposition. The field’s cause-and-effect analyses and linear narratives always seemed like a valid way to engage with the past.
Nonetheless, part of me regularly craved temporary departures from the sober minds of my would-be academic colleagues in favor of encounters with texts more closely attuned to the way history functions in everyday life: as an ongoing set of relationships constantly made and remade by emotion and memory, with various hazy pasts collapsing into the chaos of the present, for good and for ill.
For that kind of intellectual and emotional sustenance, I often turned to pop music.
Periodically throughout the last couple of decades, perceptive writers, including the great Simon Reynolds, have argued that pop music and pop culture, more broadly, have become addicted to the past. The 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s: they all looked a certain way and sounded a certain way. There is no mistaking a scene from an early season of Mad Men for one from Boogie Nights. Who could point to, let alone celebrate, widely recognized era-specific traits at a time when the internet makes “content” from all generations congeal into a flavorless mass, clothing copies the past according to an ever-shortening nostalgia calendar, and classic rockers suck up much of the musical oxygen by turning into their own tribute bands?
There is some truth to this diagnosis of broad trends in 21st-century culture. Still, many of the best artists of our time have been able to work “the end of history” to their advantage, conducting creative dialogues with the work of earlier generations and ultimately producing something new out of the old.
A number of examples exist in the world of pop music in particular: Kendrick Lamar‘s searching figurative and, at times, literal conversation with jazz and 1990s hip-hop on To Pimp a Butterfly. Rosalia‘s startling blend of classic flamenco and 2010s electropop on El Mal Querer. The early Taylor Swift‘s use of tropes from Shania Twain and Faith Hill on Fearless to narrate the dramas of a millennial teen girl with uncommon vividness. The infusion of the noisy tunefulness of Teenage Fanclub and My Bloody Valentine with traces of the Celtic folk music of Canada’s maritime provinces in all three Alvvays albums.
There is even a case to be made for Pretty.Odd., Panic! At the Disco’s much-maligned sophomore album pivots from theatrical pop-punk to the most whimsey sounds of the Beatles‘ psychedelic period. In tracks like “That Green Gentleman” and “Northern Downpour”, the record’s rummaging through the sounds of 1967 is so winningly naive that it almost merits consideration as a masterpiece of outsider art.
However, I have revisited no 21st-century musical juxtaposition of past and present with more frequency or gratitude than Modern Vampires of the City, the final album of Vampire Weekend‘s remarkable initial trilogy, released ten years ago this month.
I’ve spent so much time listening to Vampire Weekend partly because of biographical resonances that often bind us to our favorite artists. Like the band as a whole, who came together at Columbia University as college juniors and seniors (their first gig was a battle of the bands at which they placed third out of four!), I grew up displaying more interest than the average rock ‘n’ roller in what could be learned from teachers and books. The globe-trotting, brand name-bedecked, class-conscious lyrics on the Vampire Weekend’s first two albums, along with their (absurdly, in retrospect) controversial early preppy wardrobe, drew influence from postcolonial literature courses like Professor Gauri Viswanathan’s Imperialism and the Cryptographic Imagination. A historical monograph, Noel Perrin’s Giving Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, inspired a (typically) catchy, multilayered track on the band’s sophomore album.
I am also drawn to Vampire Weekend’s music — especially Modern Vampires of the City, a recording driven, in no small part, by wrestling with religious questions — by Ezra Koenig’s complex relationship to his Judaism. Like Koenig, I am a mostly but not entirely secular American Jew whose relationship to religion is one of fascination more than faith.
In recent years, sheltered from the storm of the anemic academic job market by a job teaching high school in a luxury resort setting not dissimilar from the semi-imaginary Cape Cod of Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut, I have even come to identify with the early albums’ many Nick Carraway — or Charles Ryder-esque narrators living ambivalently among the very rich.
Still, I would argue that Modern Vampires of the City should interest any listener curious about the uses of history in contemporary pop music. With this record, the culmination of Vampire Weekend’s burst of youthful brilliance, they were uncommonly successful at not just making time collapse upon itself to beautiful effect but also engaging self-consciously with the idea of such juxtapositions. “An album that gets me really excited is Modern Vampires of the City,” the producer/guru Rick Rubin once said (technically, he posted it to the exegetical website Genius.com, but let’s imagine him sitting cross-legged on the bare earth, closing his eyes, stroking his beard). “I love it. I love it. What I like about it is that it sounds completely modern and it sounds completely traditional. It could be a Paul Simon record, but it sounds really modern. And no one else who’s doing modern has that much tradition in it. And that combination really speaks to me.”
This enchanting blend of sensibilities emerges from Modern Vampires of the City‘s meticulous yet warm music, cerebral yet passionate lyrics, and the graceful interplay between the two. It is tempting to begin with lyrical concerns, as music writers often do, but we might learn more by mimicking most 21st-century music production and building our way up from the instrumentals to the “top lines”.
Great albums by rock bands — a term that applies to Vampire Weekend, introduced to the world as a guitar-keyboards-bass-drums combo, for all the group’s refusal to abide by a traditional rock aesthetic–tend to present themselves as either a controlled distillation of the band’s live act (A Hard Day’s Night, Is This It, etc.) or the product of a “studio as instrument” approach (Pet Sounds, Kid A, etc.). Vampire Weekend (2008) is mainly in the former camp, though the band would have had to tour with a string quartet and an auxiliary percussionist to replicate the record exactly. The lively, eclectic, transitional Contra (2010) contains elements of both the band-in-a-room and the wizard-in-the-studio, with the group starting to use a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to compose songs from the bottom up. Modern Vampires of the City is very much a studio creation, in the 21st-century sense of the term, born from many months of sweat and obsession behind computer screens.
Koenig and the outside producer Ariel Rechstaid contributed to the production, and there is some live instrumental work by Chris “CT” Tomson and Chris “Baio” Baio, the band’s drummer and bassist, respectively. But the album’s principal sonic architect was Rostam Batmanglij, Vampire Weekend’s multi-instrumentalist, in-house producer, and, alongside Koenig, co-songwriter from the group’s inception to Batmanglij’s departure in 2016.
The collision between past and present was built into all stages of the record’s production. “The third Vampire Weekend album is fully electronic music,” Batmanglij said retrospectively while promoting his second solo album, 2021’s jazz-influenced but utterly contemporary Changephobia. “Even though I am aware that it sounds extremely organic, it was a product of the production process.”
Some clues as to how this quality took shape in practice come from a 2013 interview with Batmanglij and Rechstaid. The producers’ goal, according to Batmanglij, was to “cover every era of recording as far as the sound we are able to achieve. Previously, I had always had [software] plug-ins that had been able to let me achieve certain sounds I’d heard in my head, but the one thing that was missing was wow and flutter of tape. On this record, we recorded pretty much all of the drums, and a lot of bass, to real analog tape. There were other elements that we wanted to record digitally and blend into that world, and, to be honest, to have an almost cartoony tape quality — just like a caricature of something that was recorded to tape.” In the final stages of creating the album, mastering engineer Emily Lazar knew that the task at hand was to “enhance the blend of the retro and modern elements that make this release sound so special… Some mixes arrived digitally, some came on tape, while others were adjusted and tweaked straight off Rostam’s laptop.”
Throughout the Modern Vampires of the City, keyboards — some analog, some extant only within Batmanglij’s computer –bring various historical eras into the present and impart a measured, melodic, emotionally potent classical influence miles away from the symphonic excesses of many attempts to integrate pre-20th century music into rock. In “Step”, a startlingly original composition built from Bach, Pachelbel, and 1890s rap group Souls of Mischief, along with several other artists sampled in the rap song, a presumably digital harpsichord plays intricate baroque countermelodies amid booming, minimalist quasi-hip-hop drums and Koenig’s gorgeous, yearning vocal melody.
Batmanglij’s piano — often an upright tuned, eccentrically, in the key of B instead of C and recorded into a laptop with a lone vocal mic in the producer’s Brooklyn apartment — consults influences like Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon along with the omnipresent Bach to bring forthrightness and intimacy to tracks like opener “Obvious Bicycle” and epilogue “Young Lion”. Various synth sounds power moments like the thrilling solo in “Worship You”, which employs a scale used in the music of Batmanglij’s parents’ native Iran but also a noisy distortion that sticks out in the oeuvre of this typically scuzz-averse group.
Most of all, Modern Vampires of the City‘s keyboard parts showcase the often-neglected versatility of the organ, whether acoustic, electric, or, as is likely the case here, digitally generated. Some of the delights of Bach’s religious music come to us through the magisterial organ lines of “Step”. A forthright organ moving buoyantly between the I chord and the IV chord invites us into the simultaneously joyous, wary, and rueful world of “Unbelievers”, a catchy anthem of agnosticism (a variety of song we might otherwise assume too paradoxical to exist). A woozy, psychedelic rock organ helps propel “Everlasting Arms”; in the second verse, a churchy, baroque organ joins in temporarily. In “Don’t Lie” and “Finger Back”, assertive, percussive rock organ fuses with booming drums that somehow add to each song’s melodic, in addition to rhythmic, power.
From the beginning of Vampire Weekend’s career, percussion has been a crucial tool in the band’s efforts to make their music stand apart from that of their contemporaries. (“We were listening to so many types of music,” Koenig told an interviewer in 2008. “We were listening to hip-hop and electronic music. And we felt like if we were to start a rock band, it had better not just be a rock-and-roll band.”) Batmanglij deserves no small part of the credit for Vampire Weekend’s unusually prominent, idiosyncratic, memorable drum parts. A song’s drums, in his view, are “as meaningful and emotional as the lyrics and the chords”.
This is reflected in Vampire Weekend’s initial trilogy and the producer’s subsequent work on his solo records and major albums by artists like Haim and Clairo. We should not neglect the contributions, though, of Tomson himself. Tomson was primarily a guitarist until Koenig drafted him into the band; his song-centric musicianship has made him more of an asset to the group than a traditional drummer might have been. Even some of the more artificial-sounding drum patterns on Modern Vampires were played live by Tomson and then digitally manipulated by Batmanglij and Rechtshaid.
On Modern Vampires of the City, the drums often remind us that we are firmly in the 21st century, even as the sounds of other epochs move in and out of the foreground. As is more often the case with pop and hip-hop artists than rock groups, Vampire Weekend are unafraid to have drums be simple and minimal when that would serve the song best or to withhold most or the entirety of the drum set until it is time for the percussionist to make a memorable, pulse-quickening entrance.
In “Hannah Hunt”, for example, the drums are absent for the song’s introduction, which features first a sound effect of waves crashing and voices chattering. Then a pattern of quick movements between the I chord and the V chords, played first by a lonely bass and then by the bass in tandem with a clear, bright piano. Tomson comes in with Koenig’s voice at the start of the first verse, but only in the form of a minimal syncopated pattern on either hand drums or tom-toms, shifting, unusually, between the middle-left and middle-right on the stereo mix within each rhythmic phrase. Even as other elements — high backup vocals from Batmanglij, a monotonal synth, woozy surf guitar — come in and out of the mix, Tomson sticks to his simple pattern, contributing to the song’s hushed, introverted beauty.
After the second chorus, though, everything changes. The song begins to rise in intensity with the characters’ emotions in the lyrics’ story of a couple on an increasingly melancholy transcontinental road trip. It is the drums that propel us through this drastic musical and narrative shift, with Tomson’s martial snare driving a high, lyrical piano melody and then the track’s climactic final chorus, in which Koenig imbues the same words as the second chorus (“If I can’t trust you, then, damnit, Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer / Though we live on the US dollar / You and me, we’ve got our own sense of time”) with a crackling desperation at odds with the words’ measured delivery the first time around. Finally, when the vocals fade and a bittersweet slide guitar takes center stage, the snare departs, and we are left with a restrained but still propulsive beat from the kick drum and tom-toms.
Baio’s bass is not always as prominent in the mix as Tomson’s drums, but the production’s emphasis on space and balance gives the bassist several opportunities to seize our attention. These include, in addition to the beginning of “Hannah Hunt”, the crucial transitions between the very different verses and choruses of “Step”, and, especially, the gorgeous contrapuntal bassline of “Don’t Lie”. To fully appreciate Baio’s indispensability to Vampire Weekend, though, you have to catch them live. Throughout Vampire Weekend’s history, the bassist’s joyous, dorky dancing has prevented the group from falling into the indie rock trap of being too cool to look like they are, God forbid, having fun on stage. These days, now that Vampire Weekend has added four touring members and integrated aspects of jam band music into its approach, Baio delivers that life-affirming charisma while holding down complex, jazz-inflected basslines, such as in the dramatic instrumental introduction the band has added to Contra standout “White Sky”.
Where does all this leave the guitar? At first, clean guitar indebted to the Smiths’ Johnny Marr and African players like King Sunny Adé was an essential part of Vampire Weekend’s sound (though even then, the band was willing to remove and later reintroduce the guitar to give a song’s sections different musical colors, as in early single “A-Punk”, whose brilliantly simple guitar part vanishes to let first a synthesized flute and then Baio’s bass take center stage). By the time of Modern Vampires of the City, though, the guitar has become one of the many ingredients the band uses to add color and countermelodies to the mix, turned to with considerably less frequency than the aforementioned keyboards but a bit more often than Batmanglij’s arresting, judiciously employed arrangements for strings and woodwinds.
Entire songs go by without either rhythm or lead guitar. When the instrument enters the picture, though, it makes memorable contributions to the album’s mingling of eras and genres. In “Hannah Hunt” alone, the instrument reminds us of the surf music of the early 1960s, the country rock of a decade later, and, tucked beneath the drums and piano of the dramatic transition into the last chorus, even the feedback-heavy alt-rock of the 1990s. Still, these era-spanning guitar parts often played directly into a laptop, help to tell an utterly contemporary story about the search for a life of connection and meaning in the soul-deflating conditions of an America ailing even before a certain fascist descended his infernal escalator.
Twenty-first-century pop musicians openly engaged with the work of earlier generations run the risk if their references are too single-minded or reverent, of creating empty exercises in nostalgia. On the other hand, if the backward-glancing artist aims, as does Vampire Weekend, for a magpie-like eclecticism, they may produce what Reynolds aptly calls “record collection rock”, in which the integration of diverse references becomes an end unto itself. On Modern Vampires of the City, though, Koenig’s vocals, even while making the songs significantly denser with allusions than they would be as instrumental music, succeed in binding all of this musical and verbal exploration together. He owes that success in part to the sheer timeless memorability of his energetic, interval-leaping melodies and in part to his infusion of even the cleverest, most allusive lines with the palpable emotions of characters nearing age 30, like Hannah Hunt and the boyfriend with whom she finds herself seeing “crawling vines and weeping willows” through the window on the route “from Providence to Phoenix”.
The people in Koenig’s lyrics, older but recognizable versions of those who populated Vampire Weekend and Contra, no longer have the luxury of seeing the world as a playground or a classroom. In what is probably an explicit statement of departure from the sensibility of the band’s early work a la Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”, the speaker, borrowing from Souls of Mischief to get started, confesses that “Back, back, way back,” he “used to front like Angkor Wat/Mechanicsburg, Anchorage, and Dar-es-Salaam”. Now, the world traveler — still young, but noticeably not as much so as he used to be — has to return home and think about how to live in the world as a grown man. He hopes that he is “stronger now” and “ready for the house” he would like to share with the person his words address. But he has doubts.
In “The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History”, the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, inspired by a line in Aesop’s Fables, proposes a division of writers into “hedgehogs”, who “relate everything to a single central vision” and “foxes” who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause”. On Modern Vampires of the City, Koenig, heretofore clearly a consummate fox, becomes something of a hedgehog. His big animating theme is rather ambitious: the ways the fading of our youth can force us to grapple with the impermanence of life itself. His speakers are unafraid to try to startle their interlocutors into listening for “the low click of a ticking clock”. “Everyone’s dying.” We start out as “young bloods” with “young hearts”, but there is “a headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know.” Trouble awaits if you don’t let the horrific images of once-bright lights “dying young” (personified as “Dianne Young”) “change your mind” about how to spend the remainder of your days.
Koenig’s highly educated speakers trawl our species’ cultural archives — some only a generation old, others from the ancient world — for ways to feel connected to the infinite despite the body’s unavoidable finitude. But they admit that attempts at finding direct inspiration in the past are sometimes little more than escapism. “I love the past ’cause I hate suspense,” says the narrator of “Diane Young” as 1950s rock ‘n’ roll crashes head-on into a frantic contemporary soundscape. In “Hudson”, Modern Vampires of the City‘s slow, spooky denouement, New York City itself brings reminders of past, present, and future nightmares. Centuries ago, “Hudson died in Hudson Bay / The water took its victim’s name.” Today, in an augur of the climate crisis, “Now river’s rise told Riverside / To change their names again.”
The most venerable narratives of all, those propagated by traditional religions, cannot reconcile these culturally Jewish but theologically agnostic or atheistic characters to the world or their places in it, though the Bible does provide a fascinating framework within which to ask unanswerable questions. At times, Koenig fully inhabits the archetypically Jewish role of Jacob spending an entire night wrestling God’s angel to a draw. After “Hannah Hunt”, Modern Vampires of the City spends four songs building up to “Ya Hey”, a climactic religious confrontation whose title references the name of God written in the Bible with four Hebrew letters but never pronounced aloud by religious Jews.
While pitched as a direct address to God, the song is distinctly irreverent, addressing the Lord as a “sweet thing”. In the chorus, the speaker considers the famous story from the Book of Exodus in which God’s voice speaks to Moses through a burning bush. “Through the fire, through the flames,” Koenig sings, “You won’t even say your name / Only ‘I am that I am.'” But the speaker, unlike Moses, is unable to greet those words with blind faith. He cannot accept the divine’s alleged prerogatives with meek acceptance. “Who could ever live that way?”
Fortunately, in Koenig’s world, even though true transcendence is unlikely, joy, beauty, and connection are accessible. “Everyone’s dying,” he sings in the last verse of “Step”, “but, girl, you’re not old yet.” Sometimes to seize life’s possibilities, we have to go against the teachings handed down by previous generations actively. An organ-backed spoken-word interlude within “Finger Back” begins with the words that close out the text Jews read during Passover: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Then, however, we find out that in this case, the “Jerusalem” in question is actually a Muslim-owned falafel shop “on 103rd and Broadway”, near Vampire Weekend’s original home base of Columbia University. An Orthodox Jewish girl finds herself falling in love with a man from another faith she meets at the counter. Should she really have obeyed the rules, “averted her eyes/and just stared at the laminated picture of the Dome of the Rock?”
Perhaps, through music, even a secular person can encounter something not unlike a divine presence. Toward the end of “Ya Hey”, we encounter another spoken-word interlude. Once again, we start out assuming we are in the world of an ancient religious text, joining Abraham or Moses “outside the tents”. Again we learn that we are instead in the present day. These are the tents of a music festival. “As the air began to cool, and the sun went down,” Koenig intones, “My soul swooned / As I faintly heard the sound” of God, in the form of a DJ, gracefully transitioning from Desmond Dekker’s reggae classic “Israelites” into the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown”. (This is far from the only nod to reggae on the album; the phrase “Modern Vampires of the City” itself comes from the song “One Blood” by Junior Reid.”)
In this passage, Koenig’s lyrics bring to the surface an idea implicit in the exertions the whole band, along with Rechstaid, have put forth to create, with help from fragments of various vanished musical pasts, new musical beauty for our own tumultuous, but still possibility-laden, historical moment. We can consecrate an imperfect world with perfect sounds.
In 2013, Vampire Weekend were already presenting Modern Vampires of the City as “very much the last of a trilogy”. The record became considerably more so when Rostam Batmanglij departed the group a few years later.
Wisely, the remaining bandmates, now (if they were not already before) under Koenig’s firm leadership, took their time following up Modern Vampires, giving 2019’s Father of the Bride room to grow into an album connected to what came before but pointed at new vistas. Where Modern Vampires is a cohesive hedgehog-like single disc, Father of the Bride is a sprawling foxy double album, though it is still the tight Vampire Weekend version thereof, moving through 18 songs in an hour. Where its predecessor foregrounds organs and sidelines guitars, now the songs include plenty of space for guitar parts, including some influenced by the Grateful Dead, an unlikely but ultimately well-suited hippy influence for this once famously, if at least half-ironically, preppy band. Where Modern Vampires, like the first two Vampire Weekend albums, drew little of its stores of musical complexity from harmony, Father of the Bride brings color, depth, and nuance to the songs through interesting chord progressions on tracks like “Unbearably White”, “Flower Moon”, and “Spring Snow”.
Koenig still brings his melodies to life in collaboration with other musicians. Now, though (outside of a couple of cameo appearances) his partners are not Batmanglij but the returning Rechtshaid and new contributors like Steve Lacy, DJ Dahi, and Danielle Haim, with whom he sings three duets indebted to the tragicomic work of classic country pairs like Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.
In “Harmony Hall”, Koenig revisits the line “I don’t want to live like this / But I don’t want to die,” buried deep in “Finger Back”, alters the melody and makes it the hook for the band’s big comeback single. Here, the existential dread comes from Trump-era politics more than religion or the speaker’s personal life. “Within the halls of power,” Koenig sings elsewhere in the song, “Lies a nervous heart / That beats like a young pretender’s.” In the Fleetwood Mac-referencing “Stranger”, we see that for a speaker very similar to Koenig himself (his partner Rashida Jones’s sister Kidada gets a shout-out by name), committed, life-sustaining domesticity has gone from the vague aspirations of “Step” to a concrete reality, complete with “the right light” and a “kettle screaming”.
Though trouble remains, the death obsession of a fretful 29-year-old does not. “After you make the black-and-white album cover with the songs about death, you can’t go deeper,” Koenig, now well into his 30s, told Rolling Stone. Father of the Bride is “the life-goes-on album”.
This change in perspective was especially evident during the Father of the Bride Tour, easily Vampire Weekend’s best. Earlier incarnations of the live act were content to present respectable facsimiles of the songs’ recorded versions, following the same setlist night after night. Now, they were playing much longer shows, mixing up the setlist, and bringing new arrangements, and sometimes even new grooves and interpolations, to old and new songs alike. A group that could have been the proverbial flash in the plan, like so many other blog darlings of the late aughts, was instead announcing itself as a legacy act you could imagine happily sharing with future generations yet unborn.
In this light, Modern Vampires of the City is not the conclusion of a story of years. It is a chapter in an epic of decades. Perhaps, when the snare attacks and the piano bursts in, and Koenig’s voice, raising an octave, strains to articulate once-easy words about a young couple’s unique but fragile “sense of time”, we are not hearing a relationship crumble to dust, but witnessing the beginnings of its rebirth from the ashes.